That was my first reaction on learning the most common name (飛び出し坊や) of the little traffic god-children who guard the intersections around my town of Minoh. Around towns all over Japan, too, it seems, but it was in Minoh that I noticed them first.
Tobidashi means fly out or jump out. (Jump out is a better translation for this context, but fly out sounds so much more fun.) The local PTAs or Youth Protection Associations (青少年を守る会) make or buy these signs to warn drivers at intersections.
According to Wikipedia (here), these signs first appeared in the Showa 30s (1955 to 1964), an era known as the “Traffic War” because of the high death rates from traffic accidents.
The very first Tobidashi boy appeared in the (then) town of Hirami-machi 氷上町 (now Tanba City 丹波市) in Hyogo Prefecture. So they are a Kansai invention (score for Kansai!), but apparently have spread all over the country.
Some of the signs read “Watch for flying out!” (飛び出しご注意！), as a caution directed at drivers, while others read “Don’t fly out!” (飛び出すな！), as a caution directed at the children. This choice of audience seems to be determined by the PTA or association in charge of the school district.
I keep imagining the PTA meetings. Who decides what the signs will look like and where they’ll be positioned? Who does the painting? What if a shy mother was assigned the painting of one by a powerful, bullying PTA leader, and she hated painting, dreaded seeing her shoddy work displayed on her walk to school day after day, with even her child ashamed of her? You could write a whole Japanese drama around the story of these signs.
Each town and region has its own flavor of Tobidashi Boys. And not only are Tobidashi Boys frequently girls, but also animals, imaginary creatures, adults, and famous manga characters. Other names for the signs are Tobidashi Dolls 飛び出し人形 (the only gender- and species-inclusive name), Little Tobidashi Monk 飛び出し小僧, Tobidashi Pal 飛び出し君, and Tobidashi Caution Pal 飛び出し注意君.
My neighborhood pretty much sticks to boys and girls, though occasionally the boy might be a devil. This Devil Boy in loincloth sends me on my way to work each morning as I cross the highway to my monorail station. And he’s there to welcome me home every night. Thank you, Tobidashi Devil Boy.
Most of them, though, are standard children. They are almost always yelling, sometimes with their mouths open so wide you can see the soft palate in the back of their throat–a red dot in the red circle of their mouth. I can’t tell if they’re yelling in anger, pain, fear, or glee, but in any case with heedless abandon.
And here is one that my big bro (AKA Onini) noticed, because she marks the way to turn up the hill when walking back from the monorail station to my apartment. (With no street names here, signs become crucial navigation guides.) She glows in the light of the parking lot sign from across the street and swings her fists in the right direction for home. Thank you, Tobidashi Girl.
I remember my father talking about the Wild West of traffic from our visit to Japan in the 1960s. He was most impressed at how the right of the road always went to the biggest vehicle. I myself was hit by cars twice in Osaka in the 1980s while riding my bicycle along the sidewalk, though the traffic had become much tamer by then. But traffic deaths have fallen steadily, and these days, if you believe Wikipedia’s country comparison (here), Japan has some of the lowest rates in the world. It’s comparable to Iceland and much lower than the U.S.
Yes, I wish there were sidewalks in my town. I wish there were clear divisions between pedestrian, bicycle, and auto traffic. I wish there weren’t so many completely blind intersections, with narrow streets blocked by buildings right at the edge of the road. I get scared sometimes, especially on my bicycle, by the deep, open drains on the sides of the road. (Lawsuit waiting to happen, says my California mind.) And I get shocked when I encounter big vans on some of these tiny roads that don’t seem much more than rice paddy trails that have been paved over. But despite, or perhaps because of, the video game-like traffic infrastructure, drivers here in this decade seem more skilled and more polite than any I’ve encountered anywhere.
Good job, Tobidashi Boy.
Ahem… good job, Tobidashi Girl!